More On Kid Work

There were many thoughtful comments on my child labor post.  Let me engage some of them here.

Some talk about the unsafe and unhealthy working condition that working kids often suffered a century ago. But we can and do regulate such things without needing to distinguish kids. Similarly some express concern about kids working too many hours a day, but we can also limit work hours without prohibiting work.

Some say we ban child labor mainly to encourage school. But laws requiring school seem sufficient for that purpose. We let kids devote lots of energy to after-school sports, clubs, music, housework, sibling-care, etc. It isn’t clear that after-school work distracts from school or invests less in the future than these.

Some say employers are easier to police than are sports, clubs, music, and parents. This suggests that we would ban hard/tedious kid work of any sort if only enforcement were easier, which seems unlikely. This might explain our less often enforcing rules against hard housework, but it doesn’t much explain why we don’t even have such rules.

Some say kids are more easily exploited and therefore need more protection. But we aren’t talking about making kids autonomous – parents must still approve of kid jobs. So only parental exploitation could be the issue.

Some say yes, we must protect kids from their parents, since job wages make it easier for parents to gain from kid suffering. But the conflict between kids and parents is just as strong when kids do housework, care for younger siblings, or work at the parent’s farm or store. There’s also a big risk of parents pushing kids to work at sports, music, acting, etc. more for parent than kid benefits – this may be a bigger problem than parents stealing kid wages. Working kids at least get work experience; what do overworked kid violinists get?

Some say parents fear kids with the resources to leave those parents at will. But a parent veto on kid work seems sufficient for that – why also forbid parents from letting their kids work?

The fact that anti-child-labor laws actually only target working directly for money still seems better explained to me by unions once seeking to avoid labor competition, and others later piling on to show concern and to push upper class behaviors on everyone.

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  • lemmy caution

    Is this the law you are worked up about?:

    This doesn’t seem so bad. Anytime there is a rule there is potential for problems on both sides.

    There are a lot of exceptions to the rules. In general the rule is meant to keep kids out of dangerous professions; allow14-16 year olds in work that doesn’t interfere with school; and keep 13 year olds or younger out of most jobs.

    Are unions really afraid of 12 year olds taking away their plumbing jobs?

  • Ben

    There are a number of questions seemingly bundled together here:

    1) What underlying thinking led to the passage of historical child labor laws?

    2) What have been the effects of historical child labor laws? On net, have they been positive or negative.

    3) What should current policy be?

    I suspect that the real divergence of opinion is focused on (2)–Robin and some of his colleagues think the net effect is negative, while most readers think the net effect is positive. These beliefs are fairly emotional, and focusing the discussion on (1) reinforces these emotions. My sense is that (3) hinges much more on (2) than on (1), and that the best way to address the divergence of opinion is to tackle (2) directly, by crafting a framework in which the costs and benefits of the policy can be analyzed empirically.

    • Matt Knowles

      My hunch is that the people who would benefit from this framework (rational, dispassionate) by letting themselves be persuaded by it probably don’t need it, and the people who need it probably wouldn’t be swayed by it.

  • rapscallion

    Until the FLSA child labor laws in the U.S. were pretty piece-meal and narrow, varying greatly by industry and state; a typical law would be like, “Children under 12 can’t work in textiles after 6 p.m. without a waiver based on economic need, which must be obtained from…” Most of them obviously came about on a local level due to the lobbying of industrial monopolists and teacher unions. I’ve tried to econometrically determine if any broad demographic variables best explain rough measures of state-wide legal restrictions on child labor, but couldn’t find any really notable results; it seems like in general, anti-child labor sentiment just went along with the rise of liberalism.

  • Maxim

    On page 12 of his autobiography, economist Walter Williams recounts how he worked as a delivery boy for a hat factory, and in off-hours played with the sewing machines until he learned how to use them. The factory owner then agreed to pay him more to sew hats… that is, until his adult co-workers saw he was taking their work away and complained to the Department of Labor.

  • JB

    You say

    Some say we ban child labor mainly to encourage school. But laws requiring school seem sufficient for that purpose

    But many of these state compulsory education laws were passed after people started advocating against child labor.

    I think all this illustrates is that laws don’t get passed and repealed at the snap of a finger. Sometimes obsolete laws stay on the books and sometimes laws that *should* be passed don’t get passed. It’s not as if there is one CEO making all the rules and passing all laws in a hyper-efficient manner. When this stuff happens organically you are bound to have seemingly “hypocritical” results that aren’t really hypocritical. They are just the result of a messy legislative system. Different people are in and out of Congress every 2 years. It’s not as if the same people pass all the laws all the time.

    • Matt Knowles

      Laws should expire with the end of the term of the executive who signed them, and only be reinstated individually. Make the current legislature responsible for all the laws on the books.

  • lemma, complex rules aren’t necessarily good rules.
    Ben, yes, I argue the net effect is bad.
    rapscallion, yes, we more back toward forager ways with wealth.
    Maxim, good example.
    JB, we often cancel old laws when new laws displace them. If child labor laws are no longer needed with compulsory school laws, why do we still have them so many decades later?

    • roystgnr

      What’s your definition of “often”? The U.S. Code is on the order of 50,000 pages now. Are there any subjects for which the associated federal regulations are free from redundancy and philosophical self-contradiction?

  • …to push upper class behaviors on everyone.

    What is the advantage to the upper class in trying to promulgate its behavioral standards to the lower classes? All that would do is lower the wall between the classes and eliminate the status markers that give them their upperness. So what is the motivational theory here?

    And more broadly: there is an enormous scholarly literature on child labor. Here’s a survey article I found in 15 seconds on Google. Don’t you think you have a responsibility to get at least a cursory familiarity with the actual history of a phenomenon, rather than speculating on its causes based on nothing more than your imagination, or lack thereof?

    • Karl Hallowell

      And more broadly: there is an enormous scholarly literature on child labor. Here’s a survey article I found in 15 seconds on Google.

      Note that this is a blatantly anti-child labor article. Here’s how it starts:

      ACCORDING TO THE Bureau of Statistics
      of the International Labor Organization,
      in 1995 at least 120 million of
      the world’s children between the ages of
      five and fourteen years did full-time,
      paid work (ILO 1996; Kebebew Ashagrie
      1998). Many of them worked under hazardous
      and unhygienic conditions and for
      more than ten hours a day. This is not a
      new problem.

      In the third sentence of the article, child labor is clearly labeled as a problem.

      It’s worth noting that school work is state-sanctioned child labor. And given that the K-12 education system often is of poor quality and consumes a lot of a child’s time with make-work of little value, why should we have compulsory education and a prohibition against child labor?

      My concern is that if children aren’t allowed to work, then they enter adulthood not knowing how to work and that contributes to their elevated unemployment rates. A lot of employers, especially in a risky economic climate like today, don’t want to take chances on an unknown. And you can’t get much more unknown than a young adult who has never worked before.

  • Constant

    If child labor laws are no longer needed with compulsory school laws, why do we still have them so many decades later?

    Suppose that the government wants everyone to take aspirin for headaches, so it passes a law requiring everyone to take aspirin for headaches. But if it does not also pass a law prohibiting people from taking ibuprofen for headaches, then some people may discover that, for them, ibuprofen works better. (They may, for example, take the minimum required aspirin and then take an ibuprofen, and discover that the result is better than loading up on aspirin.) This can lead to an eventual result that the government wants to prevent.

  • “What is the advantage to the upper class in trying to promulgate its behavioral standards to the lower classes? All that would do is lower the wall between the classes and eliminate the status markers that give them their upperness. So what is the motivational theory here?”

    Upper class behavior changes in response to lower class behavior. Upper class people are creating new status markers every year in the struggle to be near the top. Since people are always creating new status markets, there will never be a shortage.

  • sorry, typo: new status markers*

  • spandrell

    Posts like this make me glad I suscribed to this feed.
    Labor laws are so stupid it´s not even funny

  • spandrell

    Child labor laws can be argued as a way of lowering the profitability of having kids, which would make breeding harder for poor people.
    But welfare made having kids profitable again, and ONLY for the poor, so you have a mildly eugenic law fighting Disgenics 101.

  • Kenneth A. Regas

    While we claim to care so so much about kids forced to do hard and tedious tasks, we only actually prevent doing such tasks for money – many kids around us end up doing such tasks anyway, just not for money, and we hardly care. And yet somehow we’ve used all this to tell ourselves how morally superior we are to the cruel poor folk who might even consider having their kids “work.” Hypocrisy can be amazingly shallow. – original post

    Amen to JB, who points out that the inherent messiness of legislation presents many opportunities to detect hypocrisy where none exists.

    Looking past the fact that many stated objectives of the child labor laws are now otherwise addressed, they seem very well matched to conventional wisdom.

    I think that American conventional wisdom holds that
    (0) schooling through 12th grade is so good for all children that it must not be interfered with,
    (1) parents decide what work children will do,
    (2) paid and unpaid work are very different,
    (3) the distinguishing characteristic of paid work is that (non-family) employers and employees have a fundamentally adversarial relationship,
    (4) young children lack the ability to fulfill their responsibilities to themselves in this relationship,
    (5) parents are expected to be benevolent toward their children, however
    (6) paid work for children has been known to undermine this benevolence, whereas
    (7) unpaid work has no such history.

    These beliefs seem to be a good match with how child labor laws tend to work:
    (1) up to age X, unpaid work only,
    (2) then up to age Y, no hazardous work, plus limited hours (often to enforce schooling),
    (3) then up to age Z, no hazardous work,
    (4) then the adult rules,
    (5) all with various exceptions to grandfather in traditionally accepted paid employment practices.

    So let us debate the validity of the conventional beliefs, plus the statism that links “should be” to “should be a law”. But let us not call ourselves shallow hypocrites just because these beliefs are embodied imperfectly in law.


    • What is the evidence for your first items #6,7? That doesn’t see a remotely fair summary of history.

      • Robin, you might want to watch a movie that illustrates #6, how children can be exploited once they become a profit center. Slum Dog Millionaire is an example of how, because a beggar with a beautiful voice can earn a lot of alms, but because a blind beggar with a beautiful voice can “earn double”, the invisible hand of the marketplace manages to fill the demand for blind beggars with beautiful voices.

        There is also the issue of the Commercial sexual exploitation of children.

        I presume you appreciate that if there were not customers to purchase the “labor” of these children that the exploitation would not happen. A brothel can only operate as a business, not as a non-profit that gives away its “services”.

      • Yes of course there have been exploited kids who got wages. But there have also been lots of exploited kids without wages. Where is the evidence that unpaid work is associated with lots less exploitation?

      • Kenneth A. Regas

        I argued that 6 & 7 are conventional wisdom and that the child labor laws comport well with this conventional wisdom, so there is no need to impute hypocrisy. I also said that this conventional wisdom can be debated, not that it is correct. So a better question is: What is the evidence that 6 & 7 are conventional wisdom?

        My grandmother was pulled out of school after 5th grade to work in textile mills and always regretted her lack of education. She believed that child labor laws, properly enforced, would have saved her from that fate. Maybe she would have been put to unpaid work at home had the mills not been hiring girls, but she didn’t think so.

        My read of popular lore is that versions of this anecdote are quite common and that corresponding anecdotes, in which unpaid work was equally regretted, are practically unknown. In fact, tales of working in family enterprises (such as the proverbial farm) are often told with pride and satisfaction.

      • Curious that someone who thinks of himself as an economist needs proof to appreciate that when an activity generates revenues, people do more of it.

        Must be all that signaling you are doing, to your worthy overlords, trying to generate more revenues yourself.

        Exploitation of child labor and the dynamics of debt bondage

        A theory of exploitative child labor

        Targeting Child Labor in Debt Bondage: Evidence, Theory, and Policy Implications

        What this research shows is that when children work, it depresses the wages of their parents because the subsistence wages of the parents can be further reduced because of the income the children generate. The children, the family and the parents are all worse off.

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  • dave

    I would much rather have been an apprentice at 13 then stuck in school. I might actually have learned something on the job.

  • Seems likely to me that the exemption of unpaid labor was a recognition of the role of children on farms (just as the school year calendar recognized it). Remember that before Baker vs Carr agricultural areas had political power exceeding their numbers. The recent book on Prohibition (senior moment–can’t remember the title) pointed out this factor as critical for the passage of Prohibition.

    I also wonder about the theory it was union power. Unons weren’t that powerful in national politics until the New Deal. Meanwhile regulation of hours children worked date back to Massachusetts in the mid-1800’s. Progressive ideology perhaps had a greater influence on child labor laws than did the unions.

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  • You’re exactly right: child labor laws were won by unions to limit competition. What you don’t address is why the function of these laws doesn’t *continue* to be protecting adult workers from unfair competition by children.

  • What do you think about the recent trend toward unpaid internships? Half Sigma gives a class-based interpretation here.

  • Isn’t this a clasic example of centrally enforced rules used to overcome the defection problem.

    Most goods are positional (nice house, high status car, good schools) and while we know studies show that in rich societies like ours absolute gains in wealth bring little increased happiness relative gains in wealth are greatly desired.

    So if most people make their kids work we all end up worse off since activities are probably more fun than the serious work continued defection might ensure. On the other hand by banning it we are all better off since no one kids end up working to try and improve their families relative position.

    Of course all rules have a cost and the more you ban the more annoyance and social costs. So what’s the minimal rule that keeps people from defecting? Kids can work but not for money. This gives maximal freedom while preventing status increase through child labor.

    Also one of the reasons we ban child labor is not to outlaw the legitamate buisnesses and normal work done by children of functioning parents but because otherwise we can’t usefully enforce more narrow laws against true child explotation, e.g., adopting kids and making them work for you or (as is common in some parts of the world) children who are smuggled in with the promise of a better life or sent to their relatives then being tirelessly worked.

    Note that since children lack the ability to realize they are working in deeply unfair/unsafe situations and the ability to successfully report violations of law mere regulation of child labor won’t really suffice. Also even when submitting testimony it may be difficult for children who are scrubbed up by their relatives to be believed rather than taken for spoiled kids angry at their parents. On the other side the satanic sexual abuse buisness shows how easily such allegations might be fallsely encouraged, say by psychiatrists or school officials with a chip on their shoulder against a certain immigrant culture.

    • anon

      We could tax positional goods and allow part-time, low-intensity work in government-certified businesses. Some kids might still be coerced by their parents, but the problem would be limited in scale. Note that we do certify government schools, and we don’t worry too much about kids being pushed to do a lot of studying or other school activities.

  • Gary Neal

    It’s true that it is pretty hard to regulate kids working in the aforementioned areas like sports, dance, and music. I started being a “coach” when I was playing soccer at the age of 15. Sometimes kids want to work though and I don’t think that is a bad thing. It’s kind of like becoming an  immigration lawyer. I wasn’t very keen on the idea of immigration when I was in high school, but I understand the issue now.

  • Anne Lawrence

    The only time I’ve heard about child labor in the United States was in the waiting room of a medical malpractice attorney in Whiteville NC. I couldn’t believe it actually existed here! I know it does in third world countries, but America? Really?

  • Annie Green

    These are valid points. Personally, I think we have come a long way as a society. As long as we are raising these children to be good parents and adults, these issues will keep getting better.

    Annie |

  • Mia Hart

    In my opinion whether a teen/child is working or participating in extra curricular activities they both require lots of work. No child should be forced to work or participate in these activities. Plus, if a child is struggling because of their activities they should cut back on those activities.

    Mia |

  • Jason Strong

    My whole life my parents always taught me by example the importance of hard work, and involving your self in things to help you grow. So even though they never made me do anything that I didn’t want to do, I always felt the importance of working hard and trying new things. So in my opinion it starts with the parents, and showing their kids why it’s important to work. I plan on doing that with my kids.

    Jason |